The introduction of the dates led to the growth of the program to include local fresh produce in school meals.
In 1904 the United States Department of Agriculture established an experimental date station in the Coachella Valley. While the countries of Egypt, Iran, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are the world’s largest suppliers of dates, California produces approximately 50,000 tons of the tasty fruit each year, 90% of which are grown locally.
What does that mean for the Coachella Valley? It means jobs. Along with the planting, growing, packaging, and shipping of dates comes the same type of work for other crops throughout the valley making agriculture the second largest industry and one of the region’s largest employers.
What does all of that have to do with Desert Sands Unified School District? Enter date farmer Mark Tadros of Aziz Farms. Seeing the challenges of keeping his team employed during the early days of COVID-19, Mark developed some unique plans and brought his ideas to DSUSD. The first included providing fresh fruit to the nutrition services team along with recipes for the incorporation of dates. As DSUSD staff distributed meals via a drive-through process throughout the days of distance learning, they included dates and ideas for using them in a variety of dishes. The introduction of the dates led to the growth of the program to include local fresh produce in school meals. Tadros and the DSUSD nutrition services team continue to work together to bring other local growers into the program. Nutrition Services Director Danial Cappello notes, “We are lucky to live in an area where we have the resources to bring fresh produce to our students. This is a close community and Mark, and his team are perfect examples of how the workplace and the schoolroom can work together.”
This community partner shares the values that brand Desert Sands Unified School District. Mark’s efforts kept his team employed, including parents of DSUSD students, while bringing local, fresh, and nutritious components into school meals. Mark reached out to the community-at-large and created a new team focused on the betterment of students both with the healthy food and job security for parents. His unique method of combining marketing with community service have led to the growth of Aziz farms and the addition of new jobs – many for DSUSD parents.
When he heard about the district’s employee recognition program – You’ve Got IT (Incredible Talent)– he filled in a gap during a difficult time in the community. Two names are drawn each month from the many, many staff members nominated. Gift certificates to local restaurants were the monthly award until the pandemic closed down restaurants. Once again, enter Mark Tadros along with business partner and restaurateur Tony Marchese (Trio in Palm Springs). In an effort to bring fresh produce to those homebound due to the pandemic, the two created CV Harvest Box. Subscribers received weekly deliveries of fresh produce that changes each month based on the season. Now the gift for the district’s employee recognition program, CV Harvest Boxes are a welcome delight for the monthly winners. Local residents continue to enjoy the produce while growers found a unique market when restaurants were closed.
Seeing the interest and, yes, demand, for fresh, local produce the team of Tadros & Marchese next approached the city of Palm Desert and left with a commitment to hold a farmers’ market on San Pablo Avenue on the last Sunday of February, March, and April of 2021. Discussions are underway to resume the market in 2022. Always thinking of ways to include Desert Sands, they designated a prime booth area for the Desert Sands Educational Foundation. Volunteers provided information on the foundation’s work as well as an area for the sale of student work including handmade soaps from the La Quinta High School culinary arts program and flower arrangements from the Indio High School ornamental horticulture department. Most recently Mark brought the Indio High School students with him to the Indio Tamale Festival,
The opportunities continue for DSUSD as Tadros has partnered with other local growers to hold a farmers’ market at Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School. Booths were set up in the parking lot and students were given “Martinez Dollars” (featuring the face of Principal Dan Martinez) to spend on local produce to take home. Most purchased familiar veggies but a few wandered out of their comfort zone to try something a bit unfamiliar…eggplant! A second, even larger, farmers market is planned for 2022 at John Glenn Middle School.
For Tadros, it wasn’t enough for the students (and staff) to appreciate the fresh veggies and fruit, he wants them to understand the process. He is working with several DSUSD schools to establish gardens that will truly take the produce from the farm to the table.
Why does he do what he does? Mark says, “I am a local boy. I grew up here. I went to school here. My roots are here – no pun intended. This is my home, my community. It isn’t about the hackneyed ‘giving back’ because that isn’t it. I truly believe that it is the responsibility of each member of the community to do what he or she can do to make our home the best it can be.” Tadros’s mother Elaine was the first culinary arts teacher at La Quinta High School (she is currently the volunteer overseer of a gardening project at Jackson Elementary School) so the introduction of fresh fruit and vegetables to the schools wasn’t new to him. Add his total pleasure in being a farmer with his love for eating the produce of the valley and add in his commitment to his employees, many of whom are DSUSD parents, and you have a man determined to introduce healthy eating to the students at Desert Sands Unified School District.
Lead photo caption: The DSUSD Nutrition Services Team packs dates for student meals
- It-doesnt-look-like-an-egg-plant: DSUSD
- DSUSD Nutrition Services: DSUSD